Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Greasing the Twitter Train's Wheels

By ned * Other ned Posts

As a self-proclaimed citizen of the web, I recently decided to explore two web 2.0 services: Twitter and Google Reader. Met with devote praise from its cult of followers, ridicule from the knowing outside, and raised eyebrows from the unaware, Twitter's visibility has grown exponentially recently. To me it derives its popularity from the same pleasure as checking away messages on AIM or googlechat: you are able to catch up on people, interesting web finds and information of personal interest in short quick bursts. It allows you to maintain contacts and connections with people in a low-effort, unintrusive way. Contrasting Twitter through depth in its content, Google reader simplifies my internet information gathering efforts. This tool pulls articles, blog posts, podcasts, and comics from most of the sites I regularly check into a central reader. One of the ways this format differentiates itself from, say, perusing a newspaper is that I am also able to share articles of interest with fellow google reader patrons who are my contacts. In other words, if I am trying to keep up on the latest in music and know my friend Mark usually finds out about the "in" bands first, I can check his google reader feed of shared articles to see what he is digging today.

For me both mediums are representative of a current trend in how we engage information. For better or worse, information intake has become more democratic and interactive. Many new forms of media rely on individuals to monitor, select and create content to make these services reach their full potential. Information is personalized. Content spreads virally. More users participating means more content is generated which in turn means more information is spreading. As technology becomes more mobile and individuals are able to engage these tools in their idle time, these practices are likely only going to become pervasive and generally practiced. Through this distinction these formats of LCD transmitted type contrasts with how we interact with the written word on the printed page. Engaging words on paper is more closely related to how Gutenberg intended and a familiar sight in my current city of residence.

With a familiarity to large groups of people and tight quarters, most New Yorkers have adapted a variety of techniques to reading when not around their coffee shops, park benches or bedside tables. By far, the best place to observe this is the subway. There are the hunchers, engrossed in their novel and apparently their kneecaps as well. Maximizing space in a crowded car, others will rest their magazine atop shopping bags which in turn resting on their laps. Finally for those so bold, some dare the arm around the pole while holding your book stance – a position for the steady eye and body.

Images like this drive home how New York City is a reading culture. This is not because people in New York (as some inhabitants might believe) are smarter than the rest of the population of the lower forty-eight. Much of this phenomenon is a byproduct of a dependence on public transit. New Yorkers earn through the sprawling nature of their city life one of the largest average commutes of major US cities. This is not to say that Americans are immune to long commutes. In 2005, the average American worker spends about 100 hours a year commuting with an average transit time of around 24 minutes (1). With around 150 million employed Americans, we can very roughly estimate that that turns out to be around 15 billion hours of commuting time annually -- and these hours do not necessarily consider additional errand or recreational travel during the week. But unlike others, most New Yorkers hands and eyes tend to be free during journeys. Lending itself to idle time and substantial opportunities to read.

But, along with allowing one to read, these commutes are becoming more and more politically topical. Public transit and transportation generally have received a fair amount of attention over the past year. The increase in oil prices last year drove public transit ridership to record levels in many major metro areas. The 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis highlighted a general need to repair our infrastructure. Based on the 2008 campaign season and political dialogue leading up to the passage of the stimulus bill, infrastructure improvements even became central to our discussion of the current economic crisis. Images of the WPA have been prevalent in the media, attempting to hearken back to the use of public works projects to try to pull us out of the last major recession. This attention and money creates a great opportunity to impact all of those yearly commuting hours of many Americans. But, even with all this focus, how Americans spend these billions of hours is not a prevalent part of current discourse on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Commuting is generally idle time. But, as in New York, public transit enables the passenger to use that idle time differently by taking away other responsibilities. Public transit allows free hands and minds to engage information. Ultimately, that greater freedom could help grease the wheels of information flow and the economy. As with Twitter and Google Reader, to engage the full power of what the next wave online tools has to offer, we need to have the opportunity to share, interact with, and create information. The spread of the iPhone, laptop and other mobile devices allows us to work with these platforms on the platform. It is worth noting that this type of information interaction is not limited to recreational tweets. The pervasity of “Crackberries” in corporate life blur the space and times of work and play as well. Consequently, more public transit use could alter hours currently spent focused on road rage and the radio to the flow information and revenue production.

There are many factors that should be considered when deliberating where our transportation dollars are spent. Although likely not the primary issue of concern, the general productivity of the populace should be one factor taken into account in the stew of data. Whether through movies, television, and other forms of mass media, part of America’s current strength lies in its soft power over information. Perhaps public transit is one of the pieces to positioning America’s future generations to remain in this bus driver's seat of ideas.


Information cited:

(1) http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/censusandstatistics/a/commutetimes.htm

1 comment:

  1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/09/04/16/A-Vision-for-High-Speed-Rail/

    Mildly related, but interesting